How one ambitious American businessman—and his fleet of silver planes—helped the Allies win the war.

As searchlights scoured the skies over blacked-out, bomb-battered London in June 1941, Juan Trippe stood atop the roof of his hotel, his eyes sweeping the beleaguered British capital. Flashes from distant blasts illuminated the features that made Trippe look younger than his 41 years—robust build, round face, broad jaw, and coiffed hair the color of black coffee. Captivated, the quiet American watched, and listened.

Earlier in the evening, inside the subterranean recesses of the Air Ministry, Trippe had delivered the prestigious Wilbur Wright Memorial Lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society. His topic was “Ocean Air Transport.” Then, crowded by Royal Air Force brass, Trippe had launched into another, albeit impromptu, lecture on how Britain could solve one of its most pressing problems: supplying its forces in the Middle East. All the while, the muffled, monotonous thump of explosions sounded in the background. Although Trippe had spent much of the previous decade preparing for war in one way or another, it was not until today that he’d finally felt the bombs, heard them, seen them—and the war—with his own eyes. And it was only now, at roughly 11 p.m. on the night of June 17, when a man emerged from the shadows to tap Trippe on the shoulder, that he began to realize that his trip to London was more significant than it had first seemed.

“The Prime Minister asks that you join him for dinner.”

“I’ve already had my dinner,” Trippe replied. “And I know when I’m being kidded.”

He wasn’t. A car brought Trippe to No. 10 Downing Street, and to a seat in front of a crackling fire beside Winston Churchill. Churchill had heard about Trippe’s ideas and wanted to know if an air supply route to Cairo was feasible. The two men pored over maps. Scotch and ideas flowed. Two hours later, the clandestine conference adjourned.

Once back in Washington, an exhausted Trippe was rushed into the Oval Office. “What did you tell the Prime Minister?” President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked. The answer to that question would be revealed shortly thereafter, with the creation of a trans-African air route, a supply bridge through the skies that would become the Allies’ principal aerial lifeline during the early days of the war. The answers to other, more intriguing questions—Who was this man? Why was he conferencing with Churchill? And why is he such an important wartime figure?— follow a more circuitous route.

The role Pan American Airways and its president, Juan Trippe, played in World War II is a tale of politics, high-stakes diplomacy, individual heroism, international intrigue, intrepid leadership, and impossible missions. It’s the story of how the Roosevelt Administration, with Trippe’s help, secretly prepared an isolationist America for war. Of how, with Allied forces absorbing a staggering succession of early defeats, a commercial airline and its famed fleet of flying boats called “Clippers” became a lifeline. And how, as the war progressed, Pan Am’s pioneering advances in organizational and operational procedures, as well as communications and transoceanic navigation, helped link America logistically and materially to far-flung fighting fronts and laid the foundation for what would become one of the most integral instruments of victory, the military air supply system known as Air Transport Command.

And though it contains a cast of thousands—Pan American employees and an intriguing array of famous war figures—it is fundamentally the story of one man, one of America’s most significant yet obscure wartime leaders.

Jan Terry Trippe mapped air routes using pieces of parcel string and a giant terrestrial globe that dominated his office. It was an imprecise, idiosyncratic practice that commenced not long after he acquired the treasured antique in 1930, about three years after a group of army fliers—including then–Air Corps Major Henry “Hap”Arnold—founded Pan American Airways, and about two years after Trippe took control of the company.

A former navy pilot, Trippe was exceptionally secretive, and so closed-mouth that Yale classmates had called him “Mummy.” (Tripp himself went by “Terry” as a young man. Of northern European extraction, he had been named after his mother’s stepfather, Juan Terry, and disliked the name.) But he proved a shrewd, relentless negotiator. In the late 1920s and early ’30s he secured lucrative U.S. government contracts and landing rights to deliver airmail in Latin America. Seemingly overnight, construction crews carved airfields and weather stations out of foreboding jungles and remote mountainous regions. Under his leadership, Pan American grew exponentially, earning the airline substantial profits.

Trippe, though, was not content for the airline to be a regional mail carrier. He entertained visions of enormous long-range aircraft and air travel as an affordable means of masstransit, with Pan Am in the vanguard. In the early 1930s he began plotting the expansion of Pan Am’s empire on a global scale. In so doing he would directly participate in the strategic, often secret, planning of America’s defense initiatives for the coming conflict.

Landing rights agreements between the United States and European countries prevented him from bridging the Atlantic. So Trippe spun his globe to the other side of the world. Inspired by the clipper sailing ships of the 19th century, Trippe envisioned giant seaplanes soaring to Asia via tiny Pacific island steppingstones. The plan stunned Pan Am personnel, as well as the U.S. government. “Why, sometimes nobody in the State Department, or even in the Navy, had ever heard of some of the places we wanted to get to,” Trippe recalled.

Undeterred, he embarked on a course that changed not only the world of aviation, but the world itself. While Trippe’s technical advisor, renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh, flew Pacific survey flights for Pan Am, Trippe steered the company through politically turbulent skies. Roosevelt feared that Trippe was building an air monopoly. But the president and the War Department, mindful of the rising sun of Japan in the Pacific, saw the potential value of air routes and weather and communications stations in the region, so Washington warily approved Trippe’s Pacific enterprise.

On November 22, 1935, 150,000 spectators watched the flying boat christened China Clipper depart Alameda, California. The plane was greeted with great fanfare, flower leis, and popping flashbulbs in Honolulu, Wake Island, Midway, and Guam before arriving in Manila seven days later, having completed the first trans-Pacific commercial airmail flight.

By the late 1930s, Pan Am’s fleet of custom-built flying boats—Sikorsky S-42s, Martin M-130s, and the largest, most technologically advanced of the amphibian behemoths, Boeing’s flagship B-314s—had become a phenomenon, fueling a romantic fascination with international travel. Newsreels and travel posters conjured images of the shiny, aluminum-hulled Clippers as luxurious flying hotels, churning above the exotic South Seas and scudding to landings across palm-fringed island lagoons and bustling Oriental harbors. Trippe’s Clippers, each emblazoned with a large American flag, projected power and prestige around the planet.

In 1940, Trippe’s efforts on behalf of American defense continued in earnest in South America, where the War and State Departments assigned him the task of removing Axis-owned airlines that were perceived as threats. Trippe adroitly used Pan Am’s controlling interest in a German-operated airline based in Columbia with Luftwaffe-trained pilots and management and routes uncomfortably close to the Panama Canal: he dismissed the Germans (ostensibly as a legitimate business move) and replaced them with Americans who had been smuggled into the country. Similar clandestine operations were launched in Bolivia and Ecuador, effectively evicting German aviation from the Western Hemisphere.

The United States intended to keep the Nazis out. In a secret conference in early 1941 that included FDR, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and assorted military brass, Trippe was told that the United States planned to build a defensive barrier of 25 airfields and 9 seaplane bases in 14 Latin American countries. To avoid violating the host nations’ sovereignty rights, the initiative could not be a government operation. And only Pan Am, with its extensive experience in negotiations and construction, could pull it off. Trippe was initially indignant—the project seemed more an order than a request—but he accepted Roosevelt’s challenge.“Trippe always puts America first,” a State Department official quipped. “But sometimes it is hard to tell whether he is being pro-American or pro–Pan American!”

Soon, what could be best described as Pan Am expeditionary forces—merchant vessels crammed with bulldozers, generators, radio equipment, and Adcock directional finders—began steaming around the globe. With the near-instant formation of a subsidiary called Pan American Airways, Africa, Ltd.—the result of Trippe’s June 1941 journey to London—a final piece of the Lend-Lease puzzle was in place.

As early as 1940, Pan Am had been secretly flying American planes to Britain via a Canadian subsidiary. In 1941, a jointly owned venture between Pan Am and the British Overseas Airways Corporation managed ferrying operations from the United States. But the creation of a route that crossed the south Atlantic and Africa was a huge breakthrough. By late 1941, Trippe’s construction crews had completed a series of South American airfields from which bombers could be ferried to Africa via Brazil. On the other side of the Atlantic, camels delivered aviation gasoline and workers toiled in temperatures surpassing 120 degrees to build the termini of the route, airfields in Ghana, Chad, Nigeria, Sudan, and, ultimately, a seaplane base on Fisherman’s Lake in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo.

Pan Am had become a key part of America’s defense apparatus. The airline’s service covered two-thirds of the world’s circumference and sprawled 90,000 route miles, linking five continents via 322 airports scattered across 62 countries and colonies. It seemed as though the government could do nothing—be it construction, transportation, or intelligence gathering—without Trippe or Pan Am. As Life magazine observed: “Clipper flights across both oceans are currently so packed with Government agents, military observers, official missions and ordinary U.S. spies, traveling under their own or other people’s names, that four-star foreign correspondents are regarded practically as stowaways.”

On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Trippe’s projects had become largely public knowledge. His company’s patriotic efficiency was so esteemed that Life, in late October 1941, opined, “It has sometimes seemed that the rest of the defense effort, still largely composed of creaks and groans in Washington, should become an arm of Pan American.”

Pan Am responded to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor with an astonishing blur of activity: airborne pilots tore open sealed contingency orders, crews jury-rigged damaged aircraft, wire- less and Morse code signals beamed around the planet, alternate flight plans were devised. When a Japanese attack shattered Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport on December 8, 1941, pilots and crew of a Pan Am subsidiary, China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), fought fatigue and chaos to evacuate approximately 275 airline personnel, foreign nationals, and Nationalist Chinese VIPs to Chungking just ahead of the Japanese invasion. The feat would be hailed in the New York Times as “the most perilous bit of work in the history of commercial aviation.”

Then there was the odyssey of the Pacific Clipper, a B-314 that had been caught in the South Pacific when the Japanese attacked. Ordered to return to the U.S. one week after Pearl Harbor, the flying boat’s four Wright Twin Cyclone 14-cylinder engines squealed to life, its whirring props lifting Captain Robert Ford and his crew away from Auckland, New Zealand, and into history. Flying east in a series of haphazard hops, sometimes on low-grade automobile gasoline, the Pacific Clipper dodged Dutch fighter planes, buzzed a surfaced Japanese submarine in the Bay of Bengal, glided across the sands of the Arabian desert, and winged the Atlantic before safely touching down at New York’s La Guardia Field on January 6, 1942. At 31,500 miles, the trip entered record books as the first round-the-world flight by a commercial airliner.

Besides a few converted B-24 Liberator bombers, the United States had no long-range transports, so once the Clippers returned to the States they were quickly conscripted into military service. (As per a prewar agreement, at the outbreak of hostilities Trippe sold Pan Am’s Clippers to the government and leased them back. It was the only American airline to receive such special status for its equipment during the war.) Each was gutted of its civilian regality—the beds, bone china, and sterling silver flatware—and their gleaming fuselages painted olive drab, battleship gray, or two-tone camouflage. The navy requisitioned six aircraft, the Pacific Clipper included; the Army Air Forces got four.

The golden age of air travel was gone forever, but in many respects the early phase of the war was perhaps Pan American’s finest hour. Mere days after Pearl Harbor, a Clipper daringly landed on the Ganges River with a load of tires for the P-40s of the Flying Tigers; the CNAC then flew the planes into China, enabling the American Volunteer Group to shoot down 26 Japanese planes near Rangoon, Burma, on Christmas Day 1941. Dust filters and antitank shells delivered by Pan Am helped General Bernard Montgomery defeat the Afrika Korps at El Alamein. And Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 pilots, while training for their April 18, 1942, raid on Japan, received a crash course in transoceanic navigation at Pan Am’s navigational school near Miami. Pan Am not only helped Doolittle to his rendezvous with destiny over Tokyo, it helped him home.

Special missions would become routine for Pan Am. Clippers were the preferred mode of transport for high-ranking brass, diplomats, foreign royalty, and celebrities traveling to USO shows. In January 1943, one secret mission was deemed so important that no mere military aircraft would do. Only when the mysterious “Passenger Number One” appeared in his wheelchair at the dock in Port of Spain, Trinidad, did the crew of the Dixie Clipper learn they would be transporting President Roosevelt and his advisors to the Casablanca Conference. FDR’s flight would be the first time an incumbent president took to the skies and left the country in wartime.

But it was the thousands of unheralded missions that would prove to be Pan American’s most substantial contribution to the war. Despite the propaganda promulgated on both sides, Trippe knew that the war would not be won by ideology, or even American industry. “This is a war of transoceanic transportation,” he would say. America’s tremendous industrial output mattered little if the planes, weapons, munitions, medicine, and food could not reach the widespread theaters of war.

At any given moment during World War II, there were dozens—if not hundreds—of Pan American planes aloft around the world. In 1942 alone, Pan Am made 1,219 Atlantic crossings, and Pan American Ferries, Ltd. catapulted nearly 550 bombers through Latin America to Africa. Trippe’s Atlantic, Pacific, and Africa-Orient divisions transported government and military personnel, as well as countless tons of materials ranging from crude rubber, tungsten, mercury, blood plasma, and gold bars, to the most important of cargo (for soldiers and sailors that is): mail. The record postal run by a B-314 contained nearly 500,000 letters.

Pam American’s expansion into Latin America and Africa resulted in the “Cannonball Route” from Miami to India via South America and Africa, which at 11,500 miles became the longest big-scale air transport route in history. Waiting on the other end was CNAC, China’s chief contact with the outside world upon the closing of the Burma Road. Between them loomed the infamous “Hump,” the air supply route over the Himalayas. CNAC pioneered the route in November 1941, at a time when the air force deemed the idea impossible. And CNAC pilots kept flying it, in unpressurized planes and temperatures well below freezing, through zero-visibility conditions, monsoons, and winds reaching 150 miles per hour, between Japanese patrols and over towering 20,000-foot peaks.“Mastery of the Hump was one of the great epics of the war,” the creator of the Flying Tigers, Major General Claire Chennault, said. “However it posed no great problem for experienced personnel of commercial air-line caliber.”

CNAC would fly more than 80,000 missions over the Hump from April 1942 to September 1945. The supplies kept China in the fight, tying up hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops that could have been employed elsewhere in the Pacific. Trippe had originally purchased CNAC in 1933 as an entry into Asia, yet the small subsidiary ended up surpassing anything even he, with his celebrated foresight, could have possibly imagined.

In fitting symmetry, Pan American helped bring about the end of the war—though indirectly—with a special Clipper flight that transported uranium from the Congo for use in the project to develop the atomic bomb. Pan Am, however, was beginning to be eclipsed long before August 1945.

Because Air Transport Command was comprised mostly of civilian airline personnel, it was essentially a military-controlled conglomeration of Pan Am’s competitors, led in many cases by Trippe’s counterparts who, unlike Trippe, had accepted military commissions. By 1944, the colossal ATC usurped Pan American’s position as the world’s largest airline. Eventually the Clippers would be made obsolete. The storied seaplanes required more fuel and maintenance than land-based aircraft. Most would be retired to floating boneyards in San Diego or Baltimore after the war, sold for scrap or to start-up airlines in the United States and abroad.

Pan American was the largest single air transport contractor to the U.S. Navy and Army Air Forces, flying over 90 million air miles and more than 18,000 ocean crossings by V-J Day. Yet the enduring legacy of the role Pan Am played in the Second World War cannot be quantified in terms of mileage or tonnage.

Thanks to Juan Trippe, Pan American Airways had been uniquely prepared for war, with a logistical and operational system that would be the envy—and later the salvation—of both the army and navy. During those desperate days when good news was rationed, the airline gave America something to be proud of, and gave its armed forces a path to follow. Nearly all of the overseas routes Air Transport Command employed had been pioneered by Pan American as a commercial enterprise. Through its leadership and the collective heroics of its employees, Trippe and Pan American had essentially developed a flight plan that bridged America from the dark days of late 1941 to the victory of 1945.“On all fronts,” Trippe declared while the war was still in progress, “the test of war emergency has been met with courage and resourcefulness.”

Fifty years after the end of the war, a U.S. Senate resolution provided veterans benefits for Pan Am employees, and long overdue recognition to surviving Pan Am pilots—namely those CNAC civilian fliers who flew the Hump—by awarding them the Air Medal and the Distinguished Service Cross.

Trippe, conversely, would be feted shortly after the war’s end, then forgotten. In 1946, President Harry Truman presented Trippe with the prestigious Harmon Aviation Trophy in recognition of Pan Am’s contributions to the Allied victory. That same year, Trippe also received the Medal for Merit, the highest civilian award in the United States at the time and a forerunner of the modern Medal of Freedom. Trippe proudly displayed the citation in his office for the rest of his life, and habitually called visitors’ attention to it. To Juan Trippe, the award and what it represented—both his and his company’s wartime service— was the most important object in his office. More important, even, than his trusty globe.


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.